KEARNS — More than 1,000 Kearns High School students, educators and staff underwent rapid COVID-19 tests Monday and Tuesday in a pilot program intended to help keep students in school and reduce dismissals.
Granite and Davis school districts both participated in the “test to stay” protocol as an alternative to dismissing in-school learning when a school has 15 active COVID-19 cases.
Among 1,080 people tested at Kearns High, 11 students tested positive and were directed to isolate at home. Students who tested negative can remain in school the next two weeks.
Students whose families did not consent to the testing or could not be reached to seek their consent — about 30% of the student body — will learn by remote for the next two weeks until winter break begins or until they can produce a negative test to school officials to reenter the school. Free testing is available at the Maverik Center, district spokesman Ben Horsley said.
The pilot, conducted with the assistance of the Utah Department of Health and Salt Lake County and Davis County health authorities, is one of the first in the state and nation.
After this week’s experience, Horsley said Granite District is “eager to participate in any additional pilots or implementation of this type of protocol.”
Syracuse High School also participated in the pilot and the testing revealed 19 positive tests. That was in addition to 27 people associated with the school who had tested positive for the virus within the past two weeks.
The Davis District school, which tested 68% of its student body, will move to online learning starting Wednesday through Dec. 18. Winter break starts Dec. 21.
Syracuse High used its gym for testing while Kearns High asked students to social distance in the school auditorium until their test results were reported.
Testing at both schools was conducted using rapid antigen tests, which can produce results within 15 minutes. The test requires a swab of a lower nostril, which is applied to a test card roughly the size of a credit card, which can detect the presence of proteins found on or within the novel coronavirus.
Karyn Winder, president of the Granite Board of Education, said the board’s goal has been to provide a safe learning and working environment for students and staff.
“The results of this pilot provide a way forward to eliminate the disruption of dismissals and keep staff and students safe,” Winder said in a statement.
Kearns High experienced a soft closure earlier this year so it was gratifying to try another approach instead of a wholesale pivot to online learning, Horsley said.
“There’s been some recent reports about kids who are struggling using distance learning and increases in F grades as a whole. It’s very clear that many of our families are dependent on in-person instruction,” he said.
He added: “This is probably the first time in a long time we’ve been able to look at a school staff and the families of a school and say, ‘This school is about as COVID-free as it can possibly be and we’ll be able to do that tomorrow,” he said.
Horsley said Granite District has had its own challenges keeping distance learners engaged, although it is markedly improved from last spring when all Utah schools made a sudden switch to virtual learning when in-school instruction was halted.
“Even though we’ve dropped that nonengagement rate from about 40% last spring to about 4% now, that’s still 2,500 kids that are not engaging in any sort of learning and we are struggling to even get a hold of despite the best efforts of teachers. So if we can safely provide a learning environment with more mass testing, and especially these rapid tests, we’re very excited about those opportunities,” Horsley said.